3.09.2008

a distributed cluster of minds, the humane borg collective

My friend Matt McDowell (who has long since abandoned his blog, so if you want to read what he's been up to you have to look here) loaned me a book by Sean McMullen called Souls In The Great Machine a few years back which I enjoyed so thoroughly I went out and bought the trilogy. It's a fantastically geeky tale of post apocalyptic societies rediscovering science and information theory while being held in a technological freeze-frame by automated orbiting weapons platforms which neutralize with EMP blasts any device which produces an electromagnetic field below. In particular, it chronicles the impact of a machine called the Calculor, a human powered computer where each "assembly instruction" is carried out by an individual rather than a dedicated block of transistors.

It made for great fiction and if that seems like your kind of book I can't recommend it enough, however in terms of computing and networking it's a lot like William Gibson's The Difference Engine in that it simply examines alternate means of creating computing power in alternate time lines. The fact that this power happens to come from people in the former novel does have some interesting impact on the plot, but the symbiosis of mind and machine is not really explored.

Even when I read about things like the Mechanical Turk and the research of Luis von Ahn (reCaptcha is hilariously useful) the similarities to the many and widely successful volunteer computing efforts like SETI@Home, and more importantly the difference those projects were making in the scientific community were completely lost on me.

Even as a long time fan of free software and the idea that "with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow" something as shockingly useful as the Galaxy Zoo never once crossed my mind.

Which is why I suppose that today when I watched Francois Grey's Lift08 talk about distributed thought I knew immediately I had to post the video. He saw all the same trends I was seeing, but his response was to launch a series of worldwide distributed science "thought clusters" bringing professional and amateur scientists together into a pseudo "hive mind" to work on really big problems.

I think when most people consider what a computer-mind pairing might be useful for the tendency is to dwell on the ways that silicon might assist neurons; instant and unerring information retrieval perhaps, or an IM window behind your eyes, or maybe a shoutcast stream hardwired to your cochlea? But it seems that an even more powerful construct could exist in a space where computers help humans do the things we aren't so great at, and humans help computers in the same way.

If any of this seems like the kind of thing that might interest you, I encourage you to check out the talk below. Hearing smart people talk about interesting ways of solving big problems is something I'm always happy to do, so here's to 20 minutes well spent ...

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